Dumb questions you wish your teacher had never asked you

June 8, 2012 at 06:31 PM · I usually like teachers who can make me think and these teachers usually ask more questions than giving the answers. But sometimes teacher’s questions can be really useless or even counterproductive. Here is one of those from a teacher of mine many years ago. It stuck with me for a long time because it was quite damaging:

“You played the difficult parts well but this part is SO easy, why can’t you play it?”

Her question was not only unhelpful, but it also made me feel for a long time as if something very wrong with me that I couldn’t get some “easiest stuff” right quickly. Years later I understand that what she thought was the easy bits were not easy for me but she didn't know how to identify let alone fix my issues. A teahcer who isn’t able to diagnose issues that are unique to each student is not a good news.

What questions/things that you think a teacher should never have asked or said to you? Why?

Replies (32)

June 8, 2012 at 07:13 PM · The thing that irks me the most is when one has a physical trait that causes some difficulties in his/her playing, someone (I have seen many cases on v.com, from both teachers and non-teachers) would point out a famous soloist who also has that trait, and say/imply that if s/he can do it, you can too. (e.g. huge hands/thick fingers: Perlman; small hands: Midori, etc.) It's as though if you cannot do it, you are just not trying hard enough...

They completely ignore the fact that these consummate violinists are extraordinarily gifted, and they are the exceptions. I always had the urge to want to reply - "Since you don't have these problems, why aren't you better than him/her already?" but that would be rude. :)

A concrete suggestion on how to solve the issue would have been much more helpful.

June 8, 2012 at 07:53 PM · If a question makes you think, it's not really dumb.

Maybe we all need to work on developing a thicker skin...not every little thing we do is necessarily wonderful. I find too many people ask for critiques/feedback and then are hurt when it's not positive or what they want to hear...

And by that I am in no way condoning cruelty...diplomacy reigns!

June 8, 2012 at 07:59 PM · I was having trouble reading ledger lines and I mentioned this to a teacher. He responded by drawing 4 lines on a piece of paper and waving that paper in front of my face and asking, "how many lines? Can you read that?" I answered correctly, four. Then he drew another line next to those four and asked, "how many now?" "Five," I said. He said, "then how come you are having trouble reading ledger lines?"

My thought at the time was, "you tell me!"

I'm still not sure about the answer either. Maybe I was better at recognizing the number of lines that he showed me than I was at ledger lines because he showed them to me standing side-by-side instead of one on top of the other.

And even then, if you're counting, the transition between 4 and 5 seems to be pretty important. Most Roman numeral systems depict 4 as IV, not IIII, and 5 as V, not IIIII. Even tick marks represent five as four lines with a slash through them, not five adjacent lines.

So I actually think that most people don't just automatically count lines above 3 or 4, they need a different symbol to reliably recognize higher numbers.

So then, I think you must have to somehow learn to visually recognize the notes, but unfortunately I'm not very good at that either when it comes to notes above the staff. I still, many years later, don't reliably recognize notes more than 4 ledger lines above the staff. Sometimes I still have to stop, count ledger lines with my finger, and write the note letter name next to the note.

June 8, 2012 at 08:07 PM · Perlman's violins are set up with an extra long string length to accommodate his thicker fingers in high positions.

My teacher once told me I was putting on weight... I started regularly going to the gym that week.

June 8, 2012 at 09:31 PM · Here is another one:

That was the first time working with the pianist (happens to be a national prominent figure) a day before a student solo performance. I was so nervous that I twisted the D string peg when tuning the G string. My former teacher burst out with laughter: “You are freaking out! Why are you freaking out?!” Then for the first time she told me that I didn’t know how to breathe when playing.

I was going to tell her that I couldn't do anything about her first comment and that her second comment was something belongs to the lessons at a much earlier time!

But being a good student, I kept smiling and said nothing.

June 8, 2012 at 11:27 PM · I had a male Russian teacher, who was helping me work on relaxation in my bow hand/arm, tell me that my breasts were to big and that they were getting in the way of relaxing my arm. He then implied that it was my fault and I should do something about it.

All I could think at the time was "Men, sometimes they just don't get it!"

June 9, 2012 at 12:31 PM · You have got John all excited now, not good at his age ...

I know lots of women fiddlers with big attributes and it never seems to have any detrimental effect on their bowing.

June 9, 2012 at 06:42 PM · well, I am not sure if it's stupid or not. But my very first teacher didn't teach me anything about intonation or rhythm so when I switched teacher, I told him about it. After a couple months, he was like "you don't know how to count or use the metronome?"

I was kinda like "duh...no one told me!"

June 9, 2012 at 09:24 PM · Steven, you just gave a good example of dumb questions that teachers should avoid. It is dumb because it doesn't help you to build ability to solve problems but it implies fault on the studnent -- that studebt should have known better but in fact there's no reason being so. Dumb questions like this just make students less and less confident.

As Peter Charles rightly pointed out at another thread, violin playing is all mind work, teachers need to be mindful of building student's skills in aspects, technicallly, musically and psychologically.

June 9, 2012 at 10:36 PM · I always ask my pupils "stupid" questions just to check, if they are sure or unsure about something. So I somehow imply the wrong answer. ;) But because they already know me, they answer mostly correctly.

What I don't like much is, when a student sais "I don't know" for 3 times in a row. Once is ok because maybe the question was bad communicated.

Asking questions is sometimes very difficult if you have lots of different age pupils. Their theoretical background can vary so much, that you cannot really have an complete overview about all the details a pupil can or should know or not.

I agree, that violin playing, like music in general, is something coming from the mind, not just the hands. The shortcut to playing an instrument is knowledge about music and the instrument itself. Without the knowledge, everything is build on sand.

I personally have the young students just for 30 minutes a week, so its very hard to teach them violin playing and theoretical knowledge in that short time. I always hope, that they will get an good teacher in school for music and learn later. But sometimes i spend much time on the mental part and its always useful and never a waste of time!

p.s. was this off topic? :O)

June 10, 2012 at 02:03 AM · Simon, you chech student's knowledge that's not dumb but just what one would expect from good teachers and you are definitely on topic.

June 10, 2012 at 02:24 AM · I had been taking lessons from a notoriously mean violin teacher for about a year. In that year I didn't improve at all, and maybe got a little worse. I went from practicing several hours a day to practicing just enough to get through my lesson.

After one really, really awful lesson, she asked me if I liked playing the violin. I think she was trying to motivate me or guilt me into practicing more. In that moment, I realized that I loved the violin, but I hated her. I found a new teacher the next day and got back on track.

I lost a year, but learned a lesson. It was a good question from my perspective, but it did cost her a student.

June 10, 2012 at 02:40 AM · I had a Russian teacher who enjoyed saying "Look, vaht eez ze trouble veez you?"

I saw a Heifetz master class where a student did something wrong. H. corrected him. The student played it again and pretty much nailed it. Quoth Heifetz: "Why didn't you do that the first time?"

June 10, 2012 at 04:26 AM · If teachers got it right all the time, they'd be virtuosi in their field.

Every one of the questions or problems listed so far caused the student to think and, even if the thinking is not the 'answer' to the question, it was memorable.

My most awful moment with a teacher (with whom I did not get along ever, at all) was "why is what you are doing so boring?" I nearly put my instrument away for good. Then I heard him play in a recital...he was talking to himself, methinks.

June 10, 2012 at 12:35 PM · Most of these questions seem to indicate a failure of empathy, or lack of ability of the teacher to put themselves in the student's shoes, even for a minute. While I think this task is very important for a teacher, it's also very difficult. Realizing how hard this is to do has been one of the most humbling parts of being a parent!

What bothered me most about the question my teacher asked was not so much the content, but the exasperated, "anyone ought to be able to do this, so why can't you" tone. It didn' t so much make me think, as make me feel stupid--and defensive. I felt so defensive that I concocted this elaborate answer/defense in my mind, that I wrote above. Which still didn't help me solve the problem. That's why I still remember it--because of the emotional content.

June 10, 2012 at 01:24 PM · I still cringe and am unable to even think about performing because of my last teacher who was seldom focused on a lesson but when she was pretending to be, always managed to say something horrible with no indication of how to change or improve.

The ones that really still makes me so self conscious are "What is wrong with your face?" and (with a sneer) "Your breathing is louder than your playing."

She is really a miserable person though, scared to death she isn't "good enough" and a little crazy to boot, but her comments still haunt me even though I know my nerves were such in her presence I couldn't have played my best if my life depended on it! It still bothers me that there are young people being subjected to her and that the music department allows it, but that is just part of the system.

June 10, 2012 at 03:05 PM · I never had any of such comments. (well, maybe but I don't remember...)

Sometimes, it's also the non-verbal who speaks and makes you feel stupid...

Sometimes, I feel teachers don't quite understand how difficult it is to be just a normal beeing with a limited psysical ability to catch things and a life not too violin-friendly. (usually, teachers must have a great deal of natural talent to have reached a high level...even if they worked hard at it of course)

This sort of internal dilemma of beeing split and torment between what I feel and what I can do is not often adress by teachers. They all recogniza a great passion but maybe not what comes with this when one can't fulfill it... I'm all for beeing realistical but we all know that musical love isn't! It could lead to frustration or depression if not handle correctly so I think it's an important issue for teachers and students.

The best teachers are not only great for their technical, musical and pedagogic knowleadge but also very good with student psychology and can feel when it's a good or bad week, find the words to adress it etc.

On the other hand, some teachers are excellent psychologists but talk too much and are not so good to teach good technical skills.

Anyway, that is my 2 cents of advice for the teachers as a student : )

June 10, 2012 at 05:06 PM · Teaching certainly is not easy, but then look at some of the material teachers have to work with.

June 10, 2012 at 06:20 PM · Problems with teachers can be easily put right. Just find someone else. No one teacher is right for everyone, and to find the right teacher takes some hard work.

June 10, 2012 at 06:21 PM · Teaching can be very hard if teachers care. But unlike many other professions, the code of conduct in violin teaching is surprisingly lacking. It is a wild world out there, let's be honest.

June 11, 2012 at 02:49 AM · Y'all must not be worried that your teachers might read violinist.com. ;)

June 11, 2012 at 03:10 AM · Good warning. I thought about it too but I would say the same thing to my former teacher directly if I have the chance to do so. Feedback is good for business:) Yes?

Seriously, criticism can be hard to take but if no one criticizes me, it can be more scary because it could mean everyone has given up on me.

June 11, 2012 at 03:17 AM · True enough, but would you like it if someone criticized you to others, but not to your face?

I realize there's the authority thing about teacher/student relationship, but still, there is a question of integrity, it seems.

My earlier comment referred to words from a teacher now deceased, so I can't go back to ask him what he meant, and I was too young to do it then. But I have always wondered...

June 11, 2012 at 03:22 AM · When my daughter started to learn the violin lesson, she joined up mid-semester in a Suzuki studio, and the teacher knew that I played the violin. After three or four lessons the teacher saw me drawing lines for a staff in the lesson book so that I could write down the new song he was teaching my daughter. Very gently he said, "You know, Paul, all these songs are in the book," to which I replied, "What book?" We all had quite a good laugh. I had assumed the first few lessons were somehow "pre-books", and I guess he assumed that I had the books already but just wasn't bringing them along. This story lends credence to the idea that the only stupid question is the one you don't ask.

June 11, 2012 at 03:24 AM · @Marjory: I'm used to receiving criticism, both fair or unfair ones. I don't care for personal attacks, but I would not be surprised at all just at this moment if at least one person is criticizing me to others but not to my face. Can't and shouldn't stop people talking; I am more than fine with people talking about my stumbles (real or perceived)if this helps others to avoid the same mistakes.

If feedback regarding my work or my professional conduct at workplace I heard indirectly has any truth in it, like it or not, I think I know how to handle it because to do so is better for my work and my own personal growth.

Good teachers should make us think not cringe or feel helpless. That said, what I have owed the most are those who made me most uncomfortable at times, including the ones said dumb things the most. Still, this does not justify what they did.

June 11, 2012 at 12:03 PM · My latest teacher, one day asked me a question that looked silly at the time: "why does your vibrato is always so intense?"

Though it looked silly and I could not understand what he was saying, it made me rething several things, and now I can't hear intense vibrato, it makes me nauseous.

June 11, 2012 at 01:09 PM · With al these serious and sometimes hurtful experiences, some positive experience and a touch of humor re 'ask a silly question and you get a silly answer':

Many years ago I had some lessons with the great Glenn Dicterow over the course of a year. I've remained a loyal follower, keeping in touch with him, and attending master classes of his whenever I could. Besides being a fabulous player, he's an excellent teacher, who balanced very high standards with encouragement and supportiveness. I remember going to a lesson sometimes with some trepidation, not feeling prepared enough and not wanting to disappoint him. Somehow, I would always end up flying out of the lesson, feeling so high! He just had that effect on me.

Once, at a lesson with Glenn, I did something wrong - I don't remember what. He surprized me by asking in a mock-Russain accent (he's from California) "Vhy you do zees?" I immediately replied, also in a mock-Russain accent "I dunno. Een Russia ve deed loike zees." He laughed!

June 11, 2012 at 02:13 PM · I took several lessons with a different teacher last summer and he told me I didn't know how to play the violin, even though I had been taking lessons for four years. His comment was hurtful at the time, but it has caused much philosophizing about what it means to play an instrument :0

Besides he was partly true. . .

June 11, 2012 at 06:52 PM · Some time ago, a woman I knew had a teacher who asked her why did she decided to do a tatoo on her wrist (that extended on her arm). He thought that because she was playing the violin, she should not have tatoos on her hand, so she left him/he tell her to go. In his defense he is 85+ now.

June 11, 2012 at 07:26 PM · This thread needs this link:


Isaac Stern on the Jack Benny Program -- but at the start Jack is getting a lesson from Prof. LeBlanc, which goes rather badly.

June 12, 2012 at 06:32 AM · @John. Yes. You need to be qualified and experienced to teach violin well. I could teach you to knit in 15mins, ride a bike in half an hour.

Give me seven years and a dedicated and talented student and I will give you a well educated, motivated individual well on their way to becoming a violinist.

Cheers Carlo

June 12, 2012 at 11:00 PM · Seven years? Carlo,what takes you so long?:)

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